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Writing about the books I'm reading has been a bit tricky of late as I'm working my way through the Women's Prize shortlist for our upcoming podcast episode. Laura and I discovered very early on in our podding days that if we had any conversation about the books before recording it was disastrous as, points made, we then promptly forgot them for when we came to talk about them on the show. Or if we did remember they sounded rehearsed as neither one of us is a particularly good actor when it comes to recreating spontaneity. So we have a general blanket rule that we don't give away our thoughts on the books. Very frustrating when this week I finished No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, sat back, drew a breath, flexed my fingers to type, and then realised I would have to hold all my thoughts in check for another two weeks! What I can say is that a line from Genius and Ink, a book of Virginia Woolf's literary criticism that I have been dipping into here and there leapt out at me. In her Introduction Francesca Wade writes that Woolf 'knows in her own bones how important a generous, open reading is, especially when it comes to the difficult critiquing of "the people who are giving shape as best they can to the ideas within them", the contemporary writers, the hardest to judge, of which she is one, "casting their net out over some unknown abyss to snare new shapes ... we must throw our imaginations after them if we are to accept with understanding the strange gifts they bring back to us.' I love that, don't you? I'm trying to learn to be a better reader. Anyway, here's more on the book I've mainly been reading this week.
Theft by Luke Brown

Last week I interviewed Chrissy Ryan of new north London bookshop / bar Bookbar. She's someone with an almost irresistible gift for suggesting books and so I walked out with three titles, one of which was Theft. Chrissy commented that she was suprised it wasn't more widely known, 'a hidden gem'.

The novel is set in the London literary world, the protagonist Paul works at the London Review Bookshop (a bookshop that manages to be at the same time charming and intellectually intimidating, tucked away in the heart of Bloomsbury – it's one of my favourites), with a side hustle writing the books column for a magazine called 'White Jesus'. 'Who knows exactly why? Paul wonders, early on, 'The title is composed of words of equal length convenient for cover design, allows for occasional crucifixion photo shoots, appeals to the editor's messiah complex and offends 'civilians', by whom the editor might mean 'Christians', who aren't offended at all, who remain unaware of the magazine, not working in fashion or hairdressing, or living in Dalston.'

As you can tell, the writing is pin-sharp and full of delicious observation. Paul's mother has recently died and we learn he and his sister Amy have inherited her house in a northern coastal town. Realistically, Paul notes, the value of the house split between the two of them will give him just about enough for the down-payment on a two-bedroom ex-council flat in the far, far south of London a quarter of an hour's walk from the tube. Meanwhile he is living practically rent free in a crumbling flat above a branch of Greggs on East London's busy Kingsland Road. He has a shifting collection of friends some of whom occasionally come into focus but the central characters in this book are Emily, a successful writer he interviews, her partner Andrew, an older popular historian, and Andrew's daughter Sophie, starting to make a name for herself as a columnist.

I went on a strange arc with this book because I liked Paul. He seemed unhappy, but not desperately so and as someone, like many, who grew up outside of London and then moved here in my twenties I identified with his awareness of shifting identities. I then made the mistake of breaking off to read a couple of reviews, and was surprised to learn that the reviewers in question did not like this main character, The Telegraph asking 'is this the most loathsome hipster in modern fiction?' Coming back to the book I found I had lost all my empathy and for a few pages I was wondering why I was wasting my time. But just goes to show you should make up your own mind about a book because gradually the writing and these beautifully drawn characters drew me back in again. I didn't find Paul loathsome, I just thought that like a lot of people he was following his impulses, doing what seemed right to him and what I loved was the way the author built his character so carefully that everything that happens in the course of the book felt absolutely true to the way you expect this person to behave. It's also a cast of morally ambivalent characters and I didn't think Paul behaved better or worse than any of the others. Things don't turn out particularly well, but I also loved the way the novel is left open in a way that felt carefully considered rather than that Luke Brown couldn't figure out how to tie things up. I love books where the characters are free to live on in your imagination and Paul was sufficiently intriguing and mixed up, I liked being able to wonder where he would end up.

As – to be fair – the Telegraph reviewer also pointed out, just as you think you can't stand Paul, the author wrongfoots you with something vulnerable or tender and I loved that the book had all these different emotional notes. It is, as Alexandra Kleeman says on the back cover 'a quick-witted tale of generational crisis', weaving in Brexit, economics, education and privilege. In terms of story there's not all that much to it, it was the writing that was unexpected, sharp, thoughtful, multilayered and often darkly funny. Impressive, then that Brown manages to do so much with this simple narrative built around timeless themes of friendship, envy and desire – I enjoyed it very much.

Buy Theft  from

Further reading: Hmn. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney might fit the bill not only in subject matter but with characters you're not quite sure if you like or not. Also try early-days Rachel Cusk. Her first novel, Saving Agnes is a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist set in the London magazine world. It won the Whitbread First Novel award in 1993. I read it around that time and it's a testament to how good it is that bits of it have stayed with me to this day. A book I haven't read but which looks promising is Bestseller from real-life publisher Alessandro Gallenzi and if you were ever thinking of reading How To Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young, now might be the time. Also, just in, Hannah in my book club recommends The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne, a ‘screwball tale of millennial angst, pre-midlife crises and one man's valiant quest to come of age in his thirties’. Hannah reports that she thought it was going to be annoying but it was actually very funny with a scene that made her laugh out loud about the main character trying to sabotage another couple's attempt to put in an offer on a flat that he had viewed and couldn't afford. One for the list.

Three to Try


LRB Selections 2: Penelope Fitzgerald 

Browsing the websites of bookshops you love is a dangerous thing. Zipping over to the London Review Bookshop to grab the homepage link I spotted this book of literary criticism from Penelope Fitzgerald, a writer I'd like to know more about. In 1999 she wrote to her daughter:

I have at the moment two pieces for the LRB to do (but have written to get out of one of them), an intro for Folio Society for Middlemarch, an intro for J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country … a serious piece for the New York Times on Vol 2 of Richard Holmes’s Coleridge and a vexatious piece which I’m also trying to get out of, for the New York Times magazine on the Best Idea of the Past Millennium, an absurd subject.

Don't you just want to read that New York Times piece? I know I do. Anyway, I think you can only buy this book from them direct – link is above.

Dem by William Melvin Kelley

Publicist Ana McLaughlin over at Riverrun books (part of Hachette) knows we are big William Melvin Kelley fans, Laura in particular. She discovered him when her book club did A Different Drummer, she then read A Drop of Patience and recommended it for one of our best books we read in 2020. Now Ana has sent us the latest novel of his to come back into print here, Dem, which comes with a quote from Mateo Askaripour, author of buzz book Black Buck. He calls Kelley ''a master ...  a writer whose work, decades later, continues to shed light on that which millions of people would rather remain hidden.' Mitchell Pierce is a well-off New York ad executive whose marriage is falling apart. He no longer feels any passion for his pregnant wife, Tam, and even feels estranged from his toddler son, Jake. Mitchell is trapped in an unrewarding and loveless life, and though domestic violence isn’t in his character, it is never very far away, either. His life will irrevocably change one day, though, when a young man appears at his apartment door to pick up the family’s black maid, Opal, for a date. Cooley it turns out is not a stranger to the household. The twins that Tam is carrying are a result of superfecundation–the fertilization of two separate ova by two different males. So when one child is born black and the other white, Mitchell goes on a quest to find Cooley and make him take his baby. We'll read it and report back on the show but before then it's going on a little airmail trip to Vancouver.


Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn 

Another of Chrissy Ryan's recommendations, listen to that episode if you want to hear her talk about it in person. Conversations on Love is Natasha Ryan's compilation of a series of interviews in which she asks various well-known people for their thoughts on the subject. One of them is Alain de Botton which reminds me fondly of the pre-podcast days when Laura and I were trying out ideas and we got together to discuss his 'novel' The Course of Love. We've got our 100th episode coming up and I'm thinking maybe I should release it as a special – it was a lot of fun as we had wildly differing reactions to that book but agreed that no-one is better than him when it comes to writing on the subject of sulking. Anyway, for his take on love plus the thoughts of others like Philippa Perry and Dolly Alderton, support Bookbar and buy Conversations on Love from them.


What to Listen To

No pod for us this week as we were busy appearing on our friend Anna's Books on the Go podcast, which I think comes out tomorrow. But we're back recording again this week and our next show is a book club one on Ishiguro's Booker winner The Remains of the Day.

What To Read

Lee Rourke on novels without conclusions

The Five Best novels set in the publishing industry

Late Bloom: The Trials of Penelope Fitzgerald

What to Watch

Any of the million and one things going on at the Hay Festival right now. If like me you keep signing up for things but then missing them fear not, you can watch everything again, just click through to the event you registered for and it should be there. I'm just about to settle down to watch Lisa Appignanesi and Deborah Levy.

Also coming up is a new festival dedicated to biography and memoir named after James Boswell. The Boswell Book Festival takes place over 10–16 June, the programme is here. Events are free but you're encouraged to make a donation to support them. I'm particularly excited about the talk between Kapka Kassabova and Rory Stewart, two writers I like very much. Laura and I discovered Kassabova in the early days of the pod when Laura's book club read Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europehave a listen to that episode to find out what we loved about it.

What Kate is reading:

I'm currently reading, and hugely enjoying Alison Bechdel's book The Secret to Superhuman Strength, a memoir structured around the theme of exercise in graphic novel form. Anyone like me who enjoyed Fun Home will love this – more of her thoughtful storytelling enjoyably full of literary references. Gloria Steinem says 'it's as if Virginia Woolf had written comics'.

What Laura is reading:

You heard it her first, listeners. Laura has been invited to join a long-running book club in Vancouver. But will they like her? Will she like them? And most importantly what’s her first book to read? That would be Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. If that rings bells, it’s because Jennifer Lawrence came to fame with her Oscar-nominated portrayal of its teenage heroine Ree Dolly. ‘A piercing intense tale’ of Ree’s hunt for her criminal father through the Ozarks, so far this slight novel has Laura hooked.

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

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